Monday, 28 September 2015

Spiderman Activity Box

Spiderman activity box, kids activities

I have had so many compliments about this activity box that I thought it was worth a blog post.

Three kids in, we've become fairly expert at getting around and getting things done with a minimum of extra baggage, whether it's been using my oversized purse as a combo purse-slash-diaper-bag or keeping the kids' sports equipment pre-packed on standby in the hall closet or packing for an entire family vacation in only carry-ons. I'm a little obsessive about organization and decluttering to begin with, and with a family of five and an activity schedule as hectic as ours having to pack and bring anything more than what we absolutely need is simply out of the question.

Our boys have been attending each other's soccer and baseball practices and games since they were young and have become pretty adept at entertaining themselves if they get bored of watching. There are always other kids around, there are always a few extra soccer balls floating around the field, and my purse can usually be counted on to contain crayons and a notepad, a few dinky cars and a granola bar or two. Our poor youngest, though, five years younger, has been stuck in the role of spectator since birth. Literally, since birth; he first had to sit through one of his brother's soccer practices at forty-eight hours old and has been field-side almost every night of his life ever since.

Walking at nine months old and eager to do absolutely everything his bigger brothers did, keeping this kid entertained through hours in the stands or beside the soccer field six or seven days a week, every week, all year round was a bit of a challenge. So I put together this activity box which is always packed and ready to go by the front door.

We started with a metal Spiderman lunch box - my eldest's first lunch box, long since retired, which Baby has loved to carry around since he was small to play pretend school. I filled it with a box of crayons and a pad of coloured construction paper, pencils and eraser and pencil sharpener, dinky cars, dinosaurs, action figures, playing cards and a favourite ball.

Spiderman activity box, kids activities, colouring, crayons, Minions, playing cards, Thomas, action figures, dinky cars

It's small, compact, easy to carry and always ready to go when we're racing out the door for sports. I swap out the small toys every couple of weeks to stave off boredom, and our little Spiderman activity box has kept our youngest kid happy and entertained for countless hours field-side at countless soccer games and practices over the last few years.

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 Bringing Art to Life

Friday, 25 September 2015

Tryout Season

September means different things to different people. September marks the end of summer and beginning of fall, closing up cottages and back-to-school, trees changing colour and leaves crunching underfoot and hot, hazy afternoons cooling quickly for cozy evening campfires.

For our family, September also means the end of summer soccer and the beginning of tryout season - a solid month of high-pressure tryouts, training sessions and evaluations for every competitive club in every town around.

It's a scheduling nightmare for us - four or five tryouts for each of four or five clubs for each of our two rep players crammed into the space of only a few weeks, often overlapping or back-to-back with multiple tryouts for multiple teams on different fields in different towns on the same day.

It's hard work for the boys: having to be in peak form, at their fastest and strongest over and over again at every single tryout - speed, agility, footwork, being the best they can be and proving that they are the best without the benefit of the coaches knowing how they usually play - it's physically demanding and exhausting and a lot of pressure for our little athletes.

And it's stressful - for all of us.

Whether we'll be returning to the club we've played with for years of starting over with a new team remains to be seen. In the meantime, we still have almost two weeks to go: two more weeks for our soccer starts to stay strong and tough; two more weeks of gnawing anxiety for Mom; two more weeks before tryout season is over and we're left with a major decision to make before carrying on with our lives.

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Monday, 21 September 2015

Soccer Banquet

Fall is the real start of the new year for families with children - the start of a new school year, new grades, new classes, new teachers; new sports teams and tryouts and extra-curricular activities; a new family schedule as summer fades into fall and the calendar page flips over and begins to fill up.

For our family, as focussed as we are on sports - particularly our older two boys' rep soccer - this time of year also marks a significant change as the summer season winds down and tryout season starts.

The rep soccer banquet is a big event for us, a way to celebrate another successful year of working and playing together, a chance for the players to have fun together off the field and an opportunity for them to hang out together one last time as a team before, inevitably, some move on to other clubs or to focus on another sport. It's a chance for the parents to spend time together socially and a chance for the coaches and manager (me!) to relax, off-duty, and just enjoy the togetherness with the team. It's a chance to get dressed up, a night out at a nice banquet hall with lots of food and drink and music.

An awards presentation recognizes the players for their hard work over the last year, a make-your-own sundae and open candy bar pumps the athletes full of sugar after dinner and a DJ keeps the kids rocking on the dance floor under the twinkly lights until well after midnight. The kids look forward to their rep soccer banquet as the biggest celebration of the year.

This year's banquet was particularly poignant. My older son will be moving on to another team next season - we're in the midst of tryout season now, three weeks of non-stop tryouts and training sessions with his top choices of clubs. So banquet night this year was also a good-bye to teammates, to coaches, and to a club that has become an important part of our lives over the last few years.

soccer banquet, party, banquet hall, dancing, kids, sports
Soccer Banquet

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Friday, 18 September 2015

Choose Your Own Priorities

I've written before about the importance of picking your priorities and sticking to them. Planning and organizing your life - and your finances - will be infinitely easier if you have a clear picture of what is important to you and what is not. Once you're comfortable with that choice, all other choices will be much easier to make: spending, saving, setting short- and long-term goals, planning for the future.

My biggest priority is my family, my children. Spending time, making memories, teaching and learning and growing together during this short, precious time that we have before they're grown and off to live their own lives.

With the knowledge that this is the most important thing for our family, the choices we make to organize the rest of our lives are easy. A large family home in the neighbourhood of our dreams would have carried a crippling mortgage, even on two incomes, so we bought a tiny townhome we could actually afford on an income-and-a-half in that same suburban paradise. We didn't want to have to send the kids to daycare, so we gave up the second car, meals out, and lots of little luxuries so I could stay at home with them during the day while working freelance.

We spend our disposable income on the kids' sports and activities, on family outings and annual passes to the zoo and the Science Centre, and on one big family vacation to Disney World every March Break. We do not spend much money on home improvements or new furniture or fancy clothes or cars. Our income is finite and limited, for now, and we choose to spend our money on family life and experiences rather than on things. That is our choice.

I am perfectly happy with that choice and all that goes along with it. I love our home, our life and our lifestyle. I do have a "wish list" - everyone does. There are projects I'd like to take care of around the house - some big, like the new kitchen I have all planned out in my head right down to the tiniest detail, or the front hall reno where we'll blow out the closet and useless closed-in space by the front door into a gorgeously airy, open two-storey entranceway; some smaller, like new armchairs to flank the fireplace in the living room and a new storage-slash-shelving solution for the basement playroom.

But are those projects more important to me than my kids? Absolutely not. I wouldn't dream of missing out on time with my kids in order to go out and earn a few extra dollars to spend on stuff. I wouldn't consider denying my boys their rep sports just to save myself a few thousand dollars a year to buy things for our home. Our kids are our priority; everything else is secondary. And we know that as the kids get older and I am able to work more our income will increase and that wish list will get whittled down.

Normally, I don't think much about the things that we don't do or have in order to do what we do. We live in a neighbourhood of homes in all shapes and sizes. Our friends live a wide variety of lifestyles on varying income levels and with dramatically differing priorities. I'm happy with the choices we've made just as I assume they're happy with the choices they've made. But I was reminded this weekend that not everyone has the same understanding of differing priorities.

We have a bit of an unfinished project in our house. Our big project for the last two summers was tearing out the old back deck and building a brand-new two-storey deck, complete with turned staircase and landing, a pergola on the upper deck and a covered eating area on the lower deck. We engineered and built it ourselves, from the permit drawings and digging the post holes all the way through construction and building department inspection. It was exhausting, it was stressful, it took forever and it cost a small fortune. Along with the second storey deck, of course, we planned a second storey door - French doors off the living room in place of the existing big window. We haven't quite got around to putting in that door, so for the time being, if we want to use the upper deck we either go through the basement door and up the new stairs or step out through the living room window itself.

Is that our permanent solution? It is not.

But cutting a hole in our home's brick wall, constructing a frame and installing and finishing a new exterior door is an enormous project that will involve enormous time and enormous expense. We have neither the time nor the money (nor, frankly, the inclination) to tackle that project at the moment, and with the knowledge that the extra income I'll be bringing in with all three kids in school will mean we can afford the reno and pay someone else to do it, we're perfectly happy living with our deck the way it is for now.

This weekend was one of our annual parties. As the weekend approached and I rushed around cleaning and finishing up all those little unfinished things around the house you kind of forget about until you're entertaining, I found myself wistfully wishing we'd been able to get the door done before the party - and was immediately angry with myself for feeling that way. There was one particular guest, I knew, who would make a point of pointing out that the door wasn't done yet, of laughing over how long it was taking, of reminding us just how long we'd been planning to do it.

And she did not disappoint - it took less than five minutes in my home for her to make a comment. This time, though, instead of making excuses or laughing along with her, instead of feeling uncomfortable talking about money and awkward about having to live on a budget I said,

"We spend our money on stuff for the kids; we'll do stuff for the house when I'm working more and making more."
She looked question marks at me.
"Well, yeah, but don't you just want to get it done?"

And this, I think, is where so many people run into problems with overspending and debt.

Of course I want to get it done. But our income lets us afford either rep sports for our kids or a home renovation. Trying to do both right now would mean digging ourselves into debt. Our priority is always our kids, so the home renovation will have to wait until our increased income can cover both expenses.

We don't live in an impeccably decorated designer house and we don't have bottomless bank accounts to dip into to furnish and finish a flawless home. What we do have are moments and memories with our kids and a happy family home. That is what's important to us. That is our priority.

And because we are happy with that choice, we are happy to live with any consequences that choice might have.

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Monday, 14 September 2015

Growing Pains (Back-to-School Heartbreak)

It's back-to-school already.

Back to school after our last luxuriously lazy summer home together before my baby started school and I went back to work.

Back to school - this time for all three of my boys - and I'm a little lost and broken.

We've done this before. We've been doing this for years. My first boy's first day of school was seven full years ago (I was a mess) and we've been doing this first day of school thing every year ever since.

The kids keep getting older, my heart breaks a bit and swells with pride in equal measure as I mourn the loss of my babies and stand in awe at these amazing little people they're becoming, and every year we do it again.

But this year my youngest, my baby, my last little boy is off to start school, off to join his big brothers in the great big world away from home and Mommy.

And I'm a little lost and broken.

How. How. How?

How is my wee sweet baby boy big enough for school already? My last little angel. Wasn't he a newborn only a few moments ago, soft and squishy and helpless with that heavenly brand-new baby smell? Weren't we rocking only the other day in the big easy chair by his bedroom window while he nursed and I stroked his fluffy blonde curls?

Where did all our time go, our quiet mornings snuggled up on the couch and our long walks with the stroller and our afternoons playing at the park? The days that seemed they would drift on forever, reading stories and baking cookies and building block towers and painting and colouring and digging in the sandbox and sometimes just curling up on the couch around each other to watch a show, his thumb popped in his mouth and his chubby little fingers wrapped around mine, his sweaty curls stuck to his forehead and his impossibly long eyelashes blinking drowsily as his dimpled limbs settled into sleep.

Where did all our time go?

Though I suppose I knew I'd feel a few tuggings of the heartstrings, I didn't expect this gut-wrenching sadness. After all, we've done this before. We knew what to expect.

And baby boy, with two older brothers he's been dying to be just like since the day he was born, has been counting down to kindergarten since last spring. Every day. His first words, every morning, all summer long, were "how many days until I start school?" The last week before back-to-school he was literally vibrating with excitement. So we anticipated a smooth transition to school.

It wasn't.

He hates it.

He'll get used to it, I know. I'm not worried. It's just too big a change all at once, too long a day away from Mommy with too many new people and new things.

But my baby crying every morning when I drop him off and telling me he doesn't like it every afternoon when I pick him up is not helping with my transition, either, as I wonder where the time has gone.

I feel panicked, sick - did I make the most of that time? Did I do everything I could - everything I should? Was I present enough, attentive enough? Was I teaching enough - and learning enough? Was I listening enough? The time passed so quickly - did I do enough with the time I had?

I feel lost - I've never loved anything as much as being a mom, I've never been as good at anything as I have at being a mom, and I know that being a mom is the most important thing I will ever do; but with each passing year I get closer to the time when my kids will need their mom less.

I feel broken - heartbroken - as I watch my last little baby become a little boy, another sign that all of my babies are growing up.

I'm happy my kids are growing up into such awesome little people and I love sharing this amazing adventure with them. I know there are so many more years of special moments and making memories ahead of us. But it's moments like these - my last little baby boy off to kindergarten - that remind me just how short and precious these years are.

I'm just not ready for my babies to grow up.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Summer Staycation

Summer is the perfect time for a family vacation. The kids are out of school, vacation packages and flights are priced to sell, local weather is gorgeous enough that long road trips are a real possibility and many businesses - considerately and conveniently - are in their summer lull, allowing employees to take time away from the office guilt-free.

A lot of our friends have taken a week or two off this summer to go away on vacation - Orlando, Miami, the Hamptons, Prince Edward Island. Our family's heavy commitment to rep sports and the hectic practice, game and tournament schedules mean that going away during the summer is impossible, and our annual March Break trip to Walt Disney World stretches our budget to the maximum and doesn't leave any leftover dollars for further vacations during the year.

So instead of a summer vacation away, we do a summer staycation!

This year, we checked the soccer and baseball schedules and found a week with a bit of a break - though we normally have a practice or game (sometimes both - separate sports on separate fields at the same time) every night of the week, there are a couple of "off" nights built into the season to allow for rain-outs and make-up games. My husband booked the week off work and we made plans for our staycation.

Though we were tied to home for games most nights our days were free to adventure as we pleased.
We spent one whole day on the water up at my parents' place - beaching, boating, swimming and sunning. We spent another enjoying the outdoors in our own neighbourhood - a long bike ride through the ravine, a couple of hours' water play at the splash pad, a picnic at the park and a pick-up ball game with friends from around the neighbourhood. We visited the botanical garden - a favourite summer tradition - and had ice cream and a patio afternoon on Main Street.

A day out at the zoo - topped off by a trip to the waterpark - has always been one of our family's favourite field trips and our summer wouldn't be complete without it. We were able to make it just in time after soccer for one of our town's summer "Movies in the Park" nights, curled up on a big blanket with popcorn to watch a Disney classic on the big inflatable screen under the stars. And we took advantage of that "off" night to book a camping trip at a nearby provincial park - two whole days of swimming and sandcastles on the beach, campfires and roasting marshmallows, exploring the woods and sleeping in tents and just spending time together completely unplugged from the world.

It was wonderful. It was relaxing. We made memories and we had fun.

We couldn't afford the time or the money to take a summer vacation away - but I can't imagine a better way to spend a week off together than a cozy family staycation.

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Monday, 7 September 2015

Farewell Summer

It's the end of summer and I kind of can't believe it.

We were looking forward to this particular summer even more than ever before - the summer that marked the end of my home daycare, the summer that would be our last at home together before Baby went off to school and I went off to work. It would be wonderful. We would make millions of memories. We would enjoy every moment.

And we did. all went way too fast.

We slept in every morning and lazed around in jammies. We went bike riding and rollerblading and took long walks through the ravine. We made sidewalk chalk murals and played in the sandbox and had epic water balloon and Nerf gun fights in the backyard. We visited the splash pad and the skate park and went on picnics and joined the reading club at the library. We went out for ice cream and explored the arboretum. We played at the park every day. We took day trips to the beach and the zoo. The boys had baseball or soccer (or both) every night. On rainy days we played board games and Wii Sports and curled up to watch movies.

When school ended back in June the summer stretched endlessly before us, one gloriously unplanned day after another. In the middle of the summer my husband took a week off for a lovely little family staycation - a trip up north, a day out on the boat; one afternoon at the botanical garden, another afternoon at the zoo; Wonderland, the waterpark, and our annual family camping trip.

And then - suddenly - with more than a month still left to enjoy our summer, time started to speed up. The days and weeks started slipping away - soccer tournament, baseball tournament, sleepover party for the boys and their friends; one last picnic in the park, one last trip to the splash pad, the water park, the zoo, one last Movies in the Park night - and suddenly now it's Labour Day weekend and a day out at the CNE and then back to school tomorrow.

We've had such a wonderful summer. I can't believe it's over so soon!

Friday, 4 September 2015

Shopping Smart for Back-to-School

Back-to-school is the natural new year for anyone who has school-age children. A new grade, a new class, a new teacher; new sports, new teams, new after-school activities, a new family schedule.

Back-to-school can also be a very expensive time of year. School supplies - backpacks, lunch bags, pencil cases, pencils and erasors, binders and paper and notebooks. Clothes - kids seem to grow by leaps and bounds every summer and last year's pants and long-sleeved shirts leave several inches of lanky wrists and ankles dangling below the hems. At least a few new pairs of jeans and track pants, t-shirts and sweaters. A pair of indoor shoes, a pair of outdoor shoes. A jacket or hoodie for fall. It all adds up.

This year, with my youngest starting kindergarten, I will have three kids going back to school next week. Three kids in school means three times the back-to-school shopping and a fair bit of planning.

Before hitting the stores and sales we rooted through the cupboards and closets to see what we already had. Two kids in rep sports for the last three years have yielded a lot of barely-used bags and backpacks. My husband's company Christmas gift each year includes an insulated lunch bag so the cupboard under the sink is a treasure trove of lunch kits in every shape and size imaginable. This summer's massive cleanout and purge yielded more than a half-dozen pencil cases being used for various storage purposes throughout the house. We gathered everything together and let the kids pick what they wanted to use or decide if they wanted new. In the end, the only new bag we bought was for Youngest Child; starting school for the very first time deserves a special new backpack of his very own. We stuffed the bags with big box store school supply specials: fifty-cent binders, twenty-five-cent notebooks and ten-cent pads of paper, one dollar each for boxes of pencil crayons and packages of rainbow pencils and erasors. For less than twenty dollars all three boys were completely kitted out with school supplies.

I shopped big box store again for the older boys' clothes - it's a rare occasion when an item of clothing lasts longer than a season with the way these kids grow - but I lucked out with the little one. With two older brothers, much of his wardrobe has always been hand-me-downs, but he's at an age now where the wardrobe is getting a little sparse - by the time the boys outgrow their clothes they're usually also completely worn, torn, tattered and utterly unwearable. Before I even began to make a list of what I'd need to buy for back-to-school one of my soccer mom friends gave me an enormous bag full of hand-me-downs she'd discovered during a houseclean. And another bag the next week, and another the week after. It was like Christmas morning! There's nothing better for a parent's budget than hand-me-downs - and now my youngest is fully outfitted for the next year or two for absolutely free.

The kids' summer sneakers should do for outdoor shoes until winter boot season so I only had to buy one new pair per kid for indoor shoes to leave at school, and their spring jackets - bought a little too big last spring - will do double-duty for fall until the winter cold hits.

Back-to-school can be a costly time of year, but with some planning it is possible to keep the hit on your wallet to a minimum.

How do you save on back-to-school? Hand-me-downs? Second hand stores? Mom-to-Mom sales? Reusing and repurposing items you already own? What are your tricks for smart back-to-school shopping?